Location from A to Z

911? Where is your emergency?

It is a question asked 240,000,000 times a year, according to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). While it is indisputably the most critical piece of information that the caller has, it is also the most difficult to communicate to the 911 call taker. How can this possibly be in this age of modern cell phones containing location services?  

True, the cellular device you have in your pocket knows precisely the location of where it is. It uses radio signals from the mobile network, GPS satellite positioning information, and the thousands of unique identifiers broadcast by the public and private WiFi access points, known as Base Station Service Identifiers (BSSIDs). Think about it, if you are standing in your favorite Mall and while looking around you see Baskin Robbins, McDonald’s, Sports Authority, and Spencer Gifts, you know exactly where you are. The same logic applies to BSSIDs.

Each time you click on a EULA in an application, you likely agree to share your location data and visible BSSID information with Apple, Google, Skyhook, and other location database aggregators that have amassed billions of data points over the years. Because of this massive data set, the database has become insanely accurate and becomes more fine-tuned every day as more information points fill the database. Unfortunately, this data only captures locations in 2 planes, the Latitude and Longitude, also known as X and Y. The third plane, known as the Z plane, is also one that is critical, as it represents altitude.

In a 30-story building, there is an identical X and Y coordinate on each floor, in the event of an emergency, 1st responders would need the additional Z coordinate to determine the altitude or floor number to determine where help is needed. The Federal Communications Commission hasn’t ignored the problem and has been holding hearings on the issue for some time. This month, at the Monthly Open Meeting, an agenda item is listed as Fifth Report & Order and Fifth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to discuss the issue further.

Exploration of the problem has been attempted in the past. Yet, none of the solutions have provided a workable fix for cellular phones or other endpoints such as fixed lines and MLTS telephones used in commercial businesses. One particular effort was the National Emergency Address Database (NEAD). While this may have had some initial promise for cellular, the additional data needed for MLTS positioning was always questionable in my mind.

Wireless devices are quickly becoming the conventional device being used for communication, as the cellular telephone penetration figure in the US has soared past the 100% saturation level to an astounding 130%, or 1.3 devices for every person in the country according to CTIA. But there is a dichotomy of legislative requirements being applied o this segment of the industry compared to the statutory provisions applicable to multiline telephone systems.

The legacy analog wireline database, initially used for 911 call routing in location reporting, was initially highly accurate as the telephone network engineers meticulously and painstakingly maintained the cabling data. As mobility crept into our lives, those meticulous records went by the wayside, and the much more fluid ‘as-built’ environment came to exist. Compounding the problem even further was device mobility that could now freely take place without administrative control or intervention. Given the actuality of difficulty in location tracking, wireless devices have been granted an exception, when they represent the bulk of the problem. On the other hand, wireline devices are being held to an extreme level of accuracy, at great expense mind you, that seems to profit only the keepers of those databases.

For the record, I fully admit that no location can be too accurate in the time of an emergency. But, what I do oppose, is technology requiring an over-prescriptive solution adding additional cost and complexity while providing very little actual data that is actionable, edit levels that go far beyond that required for other technologies.

Unfortunately, many of those writing legislation and regulations, have never set foot in a 9-1-1 center or control room. Many of them have never responded to an emergency as a first responder. And many of them have no idea what information it Is considered actionable to those brave enough to have taken on those jobs. Maybe it’s time to start taking a look at the mission and forgetting about the technology for a brief moment. In the event of an emergency, people need help. While ideally, assistance should come from a qualified first responder, helped can come from anyone anywhere. And by alerting other bystanders In the immediate area, they can assist in directing first responders, when they finally do arrive, to be the most appropriate location.

Are we not focusing on the human element because we have become so immersed in technology that flashing lights buzzers and bells must be part of the solution? Have we decided to ignore the value of our fellow workers, bystanders, in those not directly involved in the emergency but aware of it? Let’s regulate and legislate intelligently and effectively. Let’s utilize technology where technology can help; while not becoming mired within the technology, where the solution becomes anti-productive due to complexity.

We continue to fund the upkeep and maintenance of an antiquated, legacy infrastructure that is well past its prime. We are also siphoning valuable budget dollars away from new technology that could be put to good use to solve many of the problems that exist today. Why not use the data that we have intelligently and not in an over-prescriptive manner that will create management problems of the data making it less accurate and reliable overall?

Mark J. Fletcher, ENP
Chief Architect – Public Safety Solutions – AVAYA

Follow me on Twitter @Fletch911
Listen to my Podcasts

The Violet Slate / Purple Grey Theory

When the telephone system was designed, it was very much a point to point communications network. Each endpoint (telephone) had a unique identifier (phone number) and was connected back to the central office via a dedicated twisted-pair of wires. To keep the circuits separated and identifiable for troubleshooting, the Bell System needed a method that would be simple, easy to remember and expandable to service hundreds of thousands of customers. But, how could this possibly be done? Certainly, there were not enough colors in the spectrum to support this!

But the Bell System came to the rescue, born of innovation and engineering standards. They devised a way of using just 10 different colors in a unique combination, and likely had a 50-page document on why. In any case, they defined the colors into 2 groups.

Major Colors               Minor Colors

White                          Blue
Red                              Orange
Black                           Green
Yellow                         Brown
Violet                          Slate

The last 2 were Violet and Slate, and the ‘reason’ didn’t matter. It was just the way it was, and as apprentice learned from their mentor, these colors were passed down, generation to generation of telephone men. It was how I learned, it was how my partner who taught me learned, and it was how his mentor taught him. It was the ‘Bell Way’ and that is all we needed to know.

Fast forward in my career from ‘punch-jockey’ to PBX installer, to Systems Engineer and Technician, to Telecom Manager that was currently interviewing candidates for a position. I wanted someone that had been around. Someone that grew up with some of the old ‘Bell value standards’.

One of my questions on an interview was “What color is the 25th pair?” I quickly realized, the candidates that had been around, used the familiar Violet/Slate colors, and the greener candidates would name the pair as “Purple/Grey”. Upon questioning them, they knew Violet-Slate but were taught, Purple-Grey. Despite their ‘age’ or ‘experience in the industry’, it became quite clear that there were 2 distinct groups of candidates out there. The well-seasoned Violet Slate technicians, that would maintain a meticulous wire frame, used the right tools for the right job, and did things the ‘old-school way’.

These were the guys I wanted to do cabling, nd managing the wire plant, and building the physical side of my switch room. The Purple Greys were the other guys, newer to the industry, and innovative in their thinking. They all had laptops, were already on the internet, and used software tools like Excel.

Immediately, age didn’t matter. Their experience didn’t matter. I stumbled upon the ultimate litmus test to instantly define the right person for the right job based on experience! What a great find! From that day forward, everyone became a Violet Slate guy, like myself, and the good Purple Gray guys, like Matt Konwiser, recognized their doppelganger,  and more importantly the value of both of them teaching each other.

And so concludes the story and theory of Purple Grays and Violate Slates.  Which one are you?

There is no wrong answer.


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